Book review: Jerry Lee Lewis by Joe Bonomo and Little Richard by David Kirby

By Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, December 6, 2009


The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll

By David Kirby

Continuum. 218 pp. $19.95


Lost and Found

By Joe Bonomo

Continuum. 208 pp. $19.95

In the typical 1950s rock and roll movie, restless teenagers run afoul of a prune-puss -- a clergyman, say, or the town mayor -- who insists that rock music leads to debauchery and therefore should be banned. But common sense prevails when a with-it parent talks the mayor into attending a sock hop, where young couples are seen jitterbugging innocently while some brand-new rock star plays his latest hit. "See," the parent in effect declares, "the kids are all right."

Two things should be said about that scenario. First, the prune-pusses were no dummies. Rock is inherently sexual, the '50s beat and lyrics presaged the great '60s lustfest, and the kids may have been all right, but they were also horndogs. Second, if one of the rockers appearing in the movie was Little Richard, his kinetic performances made mincemeat of the everybody-calm-down message the film makers were trying to get across.

For English professor David Kirby, author of a new book-length essay on Little Richard, the singer's thunderous impact started with the unforgettable opening gibberish of his first big hit, "Tutti Frutti": "A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom!" Of that two-and-a-half-minutes-long cut, Kirby writes, "There is a single greatest rock record, and this is it." He goes on to quote approvingly the culture critic Greil Marcus: "Tutti Frutti" made "a breach in the known world." All this, mind you, about a song that, Kirby argues, was "a cleaned-up version of a paean in praise of anal intercourse." What we now hear as "Tutti Frutti, all rooty" for example, Little Richard and his collaborator originally wrote as "Tutti Frutti, good booty."

White-bread pseudo-rockers covered Little Richard's hits -- the Pat Boone version of "Tutti Frutti" remains a classic of this-poor-man-just-doesn't-get-it mellowfluff. And other screaming iconoclasts were quick to charge through the door Little Richard had opened. (I have a special place in my heart for one such group, Huey Smith and the Clowns. One afternoon in the mid-'50s my dad came home from work as I was playing their raucous hit "Don't You Just Know It" on our living-room hi-fi. With a scornful look, he said, "I don't ever want to hear that again" -- which, of course, made me love the song even more.) But none of the pretenders could match Little Richard's frenzied howling and percussive piano-playing, not to mention the punch of his lyrics. Take, for example, the karate-chop refrain of his song "Heebie Jeebies": "Bad luck baby put the jinx on me."

And then, suddenly -- after little more than a year at the top (spanning 1955-56) -- Little Richard's creativity seemed to dry up, and when he resurfaced some years later, it was on the nostalgia circuit. His near-eclipse was largely his own erratic doing. He found Jesus and renounced rock and roll. He picked up rock and roll again. He came out of the closet. He went back in. He lacked staying power, but in his short, fertile heyday he did as much as anyone to drive a wedge between rock and decorum.

Jerry Lee Lewis has harbored similar reservations about what rock and roll means for his salvation, but he's never let them impede his career. Instead, the roadblocks came in the form of booze, drugs and women -- including, notoriously, his 13-year-old second cousin, whom he married in 1958. In addition, Lewis flummoxed his critics, if not his fans, by darting back and forth between the genres of rock and country.

Joe Bonomo, also a college English teacher, tries to make sense of all this in his book-length essay. His best insight is that in the '70s, punk rockers were inspired by Lewis as they sought to restore rock to its anarchic roots. (You might think the same point could be made about Little Richard's stuff, but neither Bonomo nor Kirby does so.) And Bonomo makes a good case for " 'Live' At The Star-Club" (1964) as not only Lewis's "best rock & roll album" but also "one of the great rock & roll albums by anyone," even though it's out of print and hard to come by in the United States.

Occasionally, each professor overhypes his favorite, and you may find yourself wanting to remind them what Mick Jagger knows: "It's only rock and roll." But both Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are now well into their 70s, and it's hard to imagine they will ever find themselves championed by more enthusiastic and persuasive advocates.

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.

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